Monday, March 1, 2010

Comfort and Challenge/Knowing and Being Known

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.


Karen said...

I attend a tiny Meeting. The people there are elderly and lovely. They're of mixed backgrounds. I've told one I'm a polytheist and pantheist who is coming to terms with what a lifelong reverence for Jesus means. She said, "Oh, what an interesting perspective to bring!" My fear of rejection by these people seems to be irrational - my need for deeper community with them is now more urgent than my need to cover my assumed differences with them.

Experience tells me that becoming deeply honest and involved with a group of people involves running a real risk. If I allow myself to be who I am, it means allowing them to be who they are. If we stick to Quaker processes, we should weather the inevitable times of mutual incomprehension and distress; if we're not weathering them, it means we're more bound up with our Stuff than labouring together towards unity. It's all rather scary, to be honest.

Your post has really pushed me to clarify my thoughts and feelings.

Anonymous said...

Good post and one that I can greatly identify with. The problem is the wounds that one must sometimes endure at the hands (or lips) of others. Sometimes those wounds are just too painful to push past to want to even try to reach a place of being known. Some ignorance is just willful and one has to be convinced that the work of helping people past their ignorance is worth it. Sometimes and in some settings, I don't think it is.

Eric H-L said...

This is a thought provoking and inspiring writing! I like the way you go over some of the things you wrote before and spiral back higher or deeper to explain more. I am imagining some kind of a musical analogy of variations on a theme. I want to take more time to reflect and respond again.

tcd123 said...

I'm a retired Presbyterian pastor who attends Quaker meeting regularly. Your honest and well expressed thoughts will be helpful, I hope, to local Friends trying to thresh out some issues in their community. Thanks for the post!

Friendly Mama said...

Karen--Yes, I agree that it does have a whole lot to do with fear of rejection and trusting ourselves as much as trusting the community. But, Pat, I also understand that there may be communities which are simply too unhealthy to allow for this kind of self-disclosure to be "safe" for all but the most centered and "weighty" of folks (certainly not me 99.9% of the time). We all carry our own baggage and sometimes that baggage becomes corporate and creates a closed, unwelcoming community for those who question the norm.

Eric, you have helped me clarify many of my thoughts and ideas and I thank for your encouragement and your questions. I'm so glad to have you as a new friend (notice the lower case f).

And Friend 123-you must bring a very interesting perspective to your meeting. You, dude, had been an AUTHORITY during your professional career. I wonder what it's like to set that down and simply be a Friend.