Well, this wasn’t the post I was going to write for the letter D in our Alphabet Soup of Quaker blogs. As a result I may yet complete the other one I was considering. Double D-licious postings!
This post though is a more difficult one, so I ask you to bear with me. Indeed, for those not familiar with British Quakers it may not make a huge amount of sense. It talks about Concern, and that is a bit of jargon that needs a lot of explanation. If you do care to read more, you can do so at the on-line version of Quaker Faith & Practice.
As Quakers we like to think we do our bit. We serve on committees, both Quaker ones and for other good causes; we campaign; we write letters; we hold vigils and prayer meetings; we try to practise what we preach as far as we are able. Some of us are very active physically in the community, others spiritually. Some of us just try to hold the daily grind together and support the rest with tea, sympathy, a chat or call, a hug or smile. We each do the best we can.
I have posted before in this series about the demands on meetings and their members.
Meanwhile, picture a Friend with a Concern. It’s obviously an important one. Friends don’t take these things up lightly. A Quaker Concern is a fearful burden. It means that we have been led to see that we must act, and this leading is directly from God. “No” is not an option. Quakers distinguish between a Concern in this sense, and being “concerned about” ie things that are important and necessary but lack the dynamic spiritual directive of a personal Concern.
There are Quaker Testimonies to some of these Concerns, formed early in the life of the organisation, such as Simplicity and Peace. More recently British Quakers have picked up at a national level a commitment to sustainable living, and not so long ago were challenging the payment of that part of tax which funded military endeavours as a breach of our right to conscientious objection.
They are not absolute rules, but in general if they don’t fit broadly with your view of the right ordering of the world, it is likely British Quakerism is not for you.
But back to the Ds of Difficulty, Distress and Diplomacy.
How do we present an issue about which we are passionate, driven, almost out of control in the fervour of our leading, in such a way that the rest of the meeting is not frightened, humiliated, or intimidated? When we start to speak we are emotional, feverish, excitable. We are unlikely to be in control of our language or aware of the reactions around us. Ministry is hard enough in the normal course of events. Under the force of a nascent Concern it is likely to be wild and dangerous.
Meanwhile the peaceful meeting for worship has been ruminating on various issues. Ministry of Concern may come like a bolt of lightning, out of the blue, and strike with emphatic force. We didn’t expect this when we had breakfast this morning. We didn’t know that our lovely, quiet, meditative hour was going to be shattered.
It’s unlikely the individual quite knew either, but they will probably have been thinking around the subject already, and of course they now have the direct and personal experience of the message. Unfortunately the rest of the meeting may not. The individual has to convince their disrupted audience of the validity of what they have felt.
But when you are not thinking quite straight, when you have had the kind of kick this leading can give you, you might not be entirely aware of the impact of your words. As a result you can cause real and prolonged distress to anyone vulnerable to the particular message you have to give. Are you talking about mental health? Don’t forget the Friend whose child killed herself. Is the leading about abuse in care for the elderly? Remember the Friend who cares for a challenging and disabled parent. Are you called to act on some injustice of the penal system? Consider the Friend whose son was convicted of X or Y. Is it racism? Beware white privilege (if you are white), or similar distortions.
In other words, in presenting our dramatic new message how can we speak in words that can be heard without inflaming resentment or guilt or genuine anger because we blunder in? The point is that acting under this kind of imperative may rob us sometimes of our empathy. Yet in some cases hard truths need to be acknowledged and we cannot shy away from facing up to unpleasant facts just to avoid hurt feelings.
I don’t have answers of course. But there are times when going to meeting for worship can feel like sitting on a keg of dynamite with a fuse fizzing away for an hour as we seek to know how we can make the world a better place. Most of the time those routine and recognised activities of committees, kindnesses and small deeds are enough. But for those other times, the rarer, wilder, over-whelming times, then small deeds have to expand and kindness has to amplify exponentially and committees may have to reconsider or be forgotten, because the meeting is there to handle the powder keg as best it can.
That is the strength of a Quaker meeting.
Our life is love, and peace, and tenderness; and bearing one with another, and forgiving one another, and not laying accusations one against another; but praying one for another, and helping one another up with a tender hand.