Friday, August 03, 2012

I Can Still Do Something Wrong

I was told more than 20 years ago that in the Society of Friends, at least the domain in which I have been planted, there are no rules but it is still possible to do things wrong.  In the fullness of time it has been opened to me that I should think less in terms of "wrong" and more in terms of "ineptly" or "unskillfully."

From my own lack of skill in Friends' practice I can testify to two such that seem to be missing, often, in conducting Friends' business.

First, I have sometimes ineptly rushed a matter to a meeting for business.  Anymore, when I first hear about an issue at meeting for business I know I am in the midst of confusion turning quickly toward despair.

I am especially susceptible  to quaking when an item is added to the agenda as the meeting for business begins.  Rarely are "emergency issues" actually emergencies and very frequently they don't belong at a meeting for business, at all.  Best to leave dealing with these for another post.

The problem thus created--that few understand what it's about--can be ameliorated, to some extent, with a period limited to clarifying questions (and for the clerk to rigidly keep discussion in that mode until all such questions have been answered), but once that is over substantial amounts of time are still likely to be taken up by people who do not understand but, thinking they do, lead us off into the thickets of their misunderstandings.   Then more time is lost trying to bring them back to the actual issue.

By the way, a skillful clerk, realizing that Friends are heading into such a thicket, must not allow this go on but tenderly intervene to stop them  and ask the clerk of the committee whose business is at hand to clarify the nature of the business.

The second inept thing I have done is to not pay attention to an issue until the last minute.  This shows up when a threshing session has been held and notes taken, a committee report has been prepared and both notes and report have been circulated to all.  Still, at meeting for business someone tunes-in for the first time, stands up and says "This is the first I have heard of this but..."

This too oft-heard phrase--also an occasion for me to quake--seems, to those who have been engaged all along, to be accurately (if uncharitably) translatable as "I couldn't be bothered with what the rest of you have been processing for a while but I am going to talk about it off of the top of my head, anyway."

It has been opened to me that if I am just now emerging from the dark on such an issue it is likely problems occurring to me have already occurred to someone else earlier in the process.   

Committees do need to write reports and notes from their meetings such that they represent their process of coming to a recommendation, including courses of action they considered but set aside and why.   When they do not it shows a lack of skill at Quaker practice.

But I need to read (and even talk over with others) those reports and notes, in advance.  It might also help, as I do that, to leave myself open, in individual worship or prayer, to hear from Christ about it--just in case, you know, my busy life and my incisive reasoning are drowning out that still small voice.  The true nature of things seen in the Light is more obvious to me than when I think them through in my own power.

This lack of preparation is deadly to the morale of a meeting for business when a string of questions are asked that boil down to "Did the committee think of this?" or "Why didn't the committee decide to do that?" This is especially true when, caught up in our own power, these represent not a true request for information but a rhetorical  prelude to our going on at length, entranced by the sound of our own voices and the occasion to demonstrate our powers of logic, about why the "this" or the "that" would be superior to what the committee is recommending.

Again, a skillful clerk must intervene to halt such off-topic discourse, and, again, a committee report can prevent it from starting if that report is skillfully written.

So, the gist of this, to me, is that notwithstanding the widespread notion that there are no rules in a Liberal Quaker meeting there are at least two unskillful things I struggle with, and see others struggling with, in conducting of business.  The first is the inability to adequately present Friends opportunities to prepare themselves to process business, and the second is in inability of Friends to take advantage of such opportunities.

Thinking about how to work with this, though, I have to start with the realization that how most of us got here, and who we were, coming in the door, is where these problems begin.  Most of us showed up at a Quaker meeting, hung around for a while  and then concluded that we knew all there was to know about what was going on.  In fact, I didn't have a clue, for a long time.   It was difficult for others to help me understand my condition as a new comer because whether addressed, usually too obliquely,  through continuing adult education or individual mentor/elder-ing my attachment to my notions about what "Quakerism" was "to me" (or to who I "was") sometimes led me to respond by playing one of the cards in the suit of  "Who made you the Quaker Pope?"  Pride.

My embarrassing experiences with my lack of skill in these matters now tempers my frustration when these two problems hamper and even hamstring a business meeting in which I am taking part.   I have to keep in mind that it is important to the meeting and the Society (as it is to my own condition) for me to be patient and gentle as we bring new Friends (and long time Friends clinging to notions) along.

I, too,  came into this totally wrapped in my "self" and in living my life out there in The World. I was reared a Protestant where, for the most part, not much is demanded from members of the congregation.  One can be involved, of course, but one can also just show up every Sunday and be done with it, if that's what one is after.   This was a barrier to my seeing the faith and practice of Friends for the narrow gate it is.  

I didn't get that Quakers did not so much abolish the "hireling infrastructure" that kept things going for the community, as they elevated the laity and placed the responsibility on the community.  

I also did not get that fulfilling this responsibility transformed the community.

Finally getting these things, it was still quite an adjustment for me, only gradually made, to give over the time necessary to make the spiritual discipline of participating in the life of the meeting work (both for my own edification and that of the meeting).  

It took some time for me to realize that this is most important piece:  learning to act in the good order is not empty ritual or adherence to forms.  Things work better when we are all skillful at the Quaker practice (everyone knows what's coming and how it gets there).  Animosity and contention grow when we ignore good order--and that ignoring is often increased when we are in contention.  

Taking the time and effort for good order has changed me,  and these changes are part of my convincement and perfection.  Orderly participation in the life of the meeting (including doing its business) is an entry into the The Life (the Kingdom of God).  It manifests the Sermon and the Fruits of the Spirit in us, it glorifies (magnifies) God on earth.  

This is why it is important for clerks and elders (e.g., Ministry and Oversight Committees) to constantly keep in mind the good order for doing business and bring Friends  who have gone off into the weeds (and that will be all of us, from time time)  back to the path.   This means continual repetition of things like "Please have your committee report completed at least a week before business meeting so we can send it out to all well in advance of the discussion," and "Please be sure to read this in advance of business meeting and contact the clerk of the committee if you have questions or concerns."

This all requires sacrifice of my "self."  It takes time and forbearance.   For the Quaker faith and practice to "work"--both for the meeting and for me--I have to accept and talk up good order, including how business is done.  

The larger concern, though, is that faithfully doing business is one more example of how being a Quaker is more than a Sunday morning thing.  The Quaker faith and practice requires sacrifice of my "self"-importance through the laying down of doing things that interfere my doing that practice faithfully and giving over to it the time and energy thus gained.  

To abuse an analogy, if it looks like a swan, swims like a swan and flies like a swan then it's a swan.  If it doesn't then, as all of us have been (and even continue to be) at times, it's likely just an ugly duckling on its way to manifesting perfect swan-hood.  Swans take time.


Anonymous said...

Hello Timothy Travis, Read your review of Guiton's book in the recent July/August WESTERN FRIEND and found your blog address in same. Great commentary, will be following your blog and catch up on past "issues." Want to recommend another contemporary deep Quaker thinker, Jim Corbett, one of the co-founders of the Sanctuary Movement in the early 1980s (he always wrote those two words in lower case) to shelter Central American refugees from Yankee persecution both in their homelands and here, once they crossed the border. His writing is quite remarkable and I do highly recommend both his books, GOATWALKING and "SANCTUARY FOR ALL LIFE". The first is out of print but can be found used on Amazon. The second you can order new from MadDog Press, I believe, for about $15.00. Corbett is one of the finest contemporary spiritual thinkers of true originality I have run across.
John Rodgers

Jnana Hodson said...

Having clerked a share of monthly and quarterly meetings, I love your phrase, "Friends who have gone off into the weeds." It is often rough, trying to keep our business on focus. Cuban Friends were quite amused when some of us were trying to translate "herd cats" and "transport a wheelbarrow of frogs" as descriptions of our decision-making process.
Glad you realize, too, swans take time. Clerks can be guided by clerks. The first time I sat as clerk of our quarter, I looked out across the room and realized we had a former clerk of yearly meeting, as well as former clerks of the quarter and active monthly meeting clerks. I realized I was set -- they would guide me. (A little more visibly, that is, than the Holy Spirit.)
Remember, too, every business session will be different. The ones you expect to be most difficult often aren't, while the seemingly easy ones can trip over something unexpected.
Glad you got your thoughts down on paper while they're still fresh. Clerking is always an experience.