The Knock at the Door

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Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation, Jesus observed, and our Friends’ meetings are not immune to the danger of dividedness.  We may look forward in hope to the promised reconciliation of all things (Eph. 1:10, Col. 1:19-20), but this will not keep houses built on sand from falling when the storm comes.  And come it must; and a community of worship divided is a house on a sandy foundation.

I see fault lines, cleavage lines, in my own home meeting, as elsewhere, not on “theological” lines of division as we ordinarily think of them, but along lines of  who’s boss around here, the Holy One or me, the individual?  If me, the individual is boss, then meeting for worship becomes a campfire for singing and storytelling — storytelling about what makes us happy or unhappy.  In such a meeting, because of its accepting atmosphere, I can hope to maintain my fantasy that others are edified by what I say, rather than that they are trying to forgive me my trespass against them.  But if it’s the Holy One who is in charge, gathering us into a Unity with an all-wise and all-loving Head and Heart, then what we thought was a campfire becomes a fire with a far different purpose, before which  me, the individual, is dethroned.  We are not in agreement about which kind of meeting we are.  And we are not in agreement that we want to know that we’re in disagreement.

This makes us a community with an unmentionable elephant in the room, whose unmentionability is a rule, itself unmentionable, that everyone abides by.  It’s very hard to be the first to mention the elephant and the rule, because the penalty for breaking an unmentionable prohibition is also unmentionable, and therefore may incur pain, horror and guilt that are unmentionably vast.  Only when the prospect of life without breaking the prohibition seems more dreadful than the unknown consequences of breaking it can we dare to defy the fear and open our mouths.

Fear rules in such a meeting, and where fear rules, so do his brothers anger and guilt.  We’re civilized about it, of course, and forgiving, just as we try to be in a marriage that’s grown cold and pleasureless.  At rise of meeting, we smile when we shake hands, and the announcements are read cheerfully; surely this is not the time to say that the meeting was hijacked by disorderly speakers.  But when is it time?  If we dedicate a Sunday afternoon to a called meeting to discuss the elephant, will the necessary people come to it?  And will their ears be opened to hear?

Of course, the elephant-mentioner must not expect his announcement to be greeted by agreement and expressions of relief, because fear, anger and guilt are skilled at hiding themselves and don’t like being outed.  Those of us who can often live in denial of them, perfectly normal though they are, waste-products of life in an imperfect world.

Are we not angry?  Scientists tell us we’re cooking the planet, turning good land into desert and the oceans into death soup, while policymakers deny climate change and otherwise dance to the tune of the corporate masters that bought them.  Our fellow-citizens seem hypnotized by the for-profit media that tell them what to think; our religious institutions, for the most part, provide little help in connecting us with a living God who empowers us to do all things and whose voice, from behind us, says “This is the way, walk in it.”  Absent such felt contact with an omnipotent, omniscient and loving God who can be relied on to show us what to do, shouldn’t our experience of powerlessness in an insane world make us fearful, and the fear make us angry?

And if our meetings for worship seem to hinder, rather than facilitate, our contact with our Only Wise Teacher, is it any wonder that we turn our anger onto other members of our faith community?  And is it any wonder that, lacking firm contact with our Holy Guide, we hear our fellow-worshippers urging us at rise of meeting (depending on the political coloration of our Meeting) to come to such-and-such a demonstration, or to vote for candidates of such-and-such a party?  If the Mind of Christ is one mind, how is it that Friends are so often Democrats in blue states and Republicans in red? Have we despaired, amid all the noise of our meetings for worship, of being made “of one heart and soul” (Acts 4:32)?

As for guilt, shame, and our need for reassurances of God’s forgiveness and healing: there is a fair share of mutual confession, and requests for one another’s forgiveness,  in the small Quaker meeting that is my household, but I see precious little of it at the meeting where my wife, my children and I hold formal membership.  This is hardly surprising, since, for all the apostolic advices about it in the New Testament, I find no mention of it in my yearly meeting’s Faith and Practice.

Another way of saying that fear, anger and guilt rule in an unruly Friends’ meeting is that separation rules rather than Unity, and that we’re collectively content with separation because that’s all we know.  If we were inwardly unified, perhaps, we’d look out on a world that appeared to us as one unified organism, growing toward perfection in spite of its transient growing-pains.  But if our inward condition is a war of all against all, what else can we see outside of ourselves but the same?

Whatever our inward condition, though, and however it projects itself on our outward experience, including our experience of the condition of our meeting, there is One who knocks at our door (Rev. 3:20).  If we’ve put rubber plugs in our ears so as not to hear Him, He’ll knock more loudly, so that not only we but also our meeting will hear.  He can be relied on to do that, because He loves us.  Let us be thankful.

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10 Responses to “The Knock at the Door”

  1. Marshall Massey Says:

    Rightly said, Friend.

  2. Rich Accetta-Evans Says:

    “Surely this is not the time to say that the meeting was hijacked by disorderly speakers.”

    Hi John,
    I have been present at some of the meetings you are probably referring to – meetings “hijacked by disorderly speakers”. I think of one in particular, though there are others.

    But my perception of the problem and of the meeting’s response is different than yours at lest in the most recent example that comes to mind.

    First, I don’t think there was any conscious or unconscious conspiracy to ignore or deny this problem. Many Friends complained of it. And – – more to the point – – a few weighty Friends and at least one not-so-weighty Friend (me) did talk gently but firmly with the “disorderly speaker”. This speaker, who may or may not be a “troubled” person is also a very new attender at obviously unaware of what the Meeting is about. Those who spoke to him I think made it clear, and we can hope that he got the message.

    No, I don’t think the time to discuss this was during announcements after Meeting. I think it should be done, to the extent possible, in one-to-one gospel order fashion.

    I think our Meeting is largely at unity in understanding that our purpose when gathered is to be open to the Holy Spirit. Some of us no doubt need to grow in our understanding of what that means. But to say that the worship in our Meeting hinders rather than helps our contact with our Teacher is to my mind unjustified. You may be projecting what it feels like for you onto the experience of us all.

    I hope you keep coming

    – – Rich

  3. Patricia Dallmann Says:

    “If we were inwardly unified, perhaps, we’d look out on a world that appeared to us as one unified organism, growing toward perfection in spite of its transient growing-pains.”

    I think this is a very important observation, John. It’s only as we embody this wholeness or unity that we can compassionately see where the problem issues are in our selves, community, or society.
    We can see the problems without ourselves being whole, but we won’t be seeing with compassion, and our efforts to remedy the problems will be ineffective.

    Confusion in our meetings often occurs when participating in the denial you’ve described is equated with enacting God’s love. Probably the mistaken assumption is: The Cross (the Truth) can’t be the loving design of God for us, because it hurts too much.

  4. Mariellen Gilpin Says:

    May I have permission to reprint? What Canst Thou Say? is a quarterly publication for Quakers who have mystical experiences or pray contemplatively. We’re working toward an issue in 2014 on Religious Wounding, and this feels like a worthy document to offer the editors of that issue (of which I am one).
    Blessings,
    Mariellen

  5. QuaCarol Says:

    “Separation rules rather than Unity, and . . . we’re collectively content with separation because that’s all we know.”

    I think there’s more to it, John. Consider this: What if we’re content with separation because it’s all we can bear?

    What if our only experience of any semblance of Unity comes from having survived a life where few personal boundaries were respected? where we were constantly invaded, absorbed, or objectified by others around us?

    Overwhelming, pervasive shame is often a result of such violations. And that shame can be so unbearable that the burden of it, the horror of it, means that we will go to any length to avoid making confessions and asking for forgiveness.

    A small meeting (under 20 or so) may have one or two souls that have endured such violations and are carrying shame in such a manner. The other members of a small meeting stand a chance of managing the challenges these souls bring. A large, urban meeting will have many, many more. My observation is that in a large meeting, a critical mass of such souls can quickly be reached–critical mass as in the amount of fissile material needed to sustain nuclear fission.

  6. Thy Friend John Says:

    All of you who have commented should know that the other night I dreamt that I walked into a crowded room full of wise, elderly academics in dark, formal clothing, and Albert Einstein, seeing me walk in, lit up with a big smile of joy from across the room. I at once associated the dream with the attention my blog posting had gotten from Friends of whose wisdom and discernment I think so highly.

    I’ve told Mariellen (who responded on 7/17) that I will submit this blog posting to her quarterly, What Canst Thou Say? – after I’ve done more work on it: specifically, (1) to make it less “about” my perceptions of my home meeting’s problems, and more about my perceptions of a problem that I think many Friends’ meetings must be facing; and (2) to clarify my thoughts about what opens us to “the Unity that we had with God before the world began” and what veils it from us, and what might make us prefer separateness to Unity. I’m indebted to Patricia and Carol for their thoughts on this, which to my mind have the ring of deep truth.

    I hear what Rich is saying, but it wasn’t just that one disorderly speaker at that one meeting that makes me express myself as I do, Rich, and in my discernment the unmentionable elephant at our meeting (and many others, I think) is real, persistent and toxic. But distaste for the elephant would anyway never be enough to make me stop attending our meeting, because I belong to the Lord, and I will go to worship and serve Him where He tells me to go. Therefore, only if the Lord directed me away from our meeting or disabled me would I leave it, and then He’d have to tell me what to do about my unexpired term on the Pastoral Care Committee, an obligation I take very seriously because I regard it as given to me from His hand. Thank thee for thy loving wish to have me keep coming, and I hope that these words of mine reassure thee, even though I’m disagreeing with thee here; I think thee knows that I love thee.

  7. Rich Accetta-Evans Says:

    Hi John. I’m reassured. Thank you.
    Also. I should have made it clear that I agree we should find time to discuss the “elephant in the room” or at least to discuss whether there is such an elephant (or donkey, maybe).

    I hope you’d agree with me that during the announcements after meeting would not be the time, especially if it risked shaming or embarrassing an innocent newcomer or visitor.

  8. treegestalt Says:

    I think this relates to a question that came to me recently: Are we supposed to be ‘alone with God together’ or ‘together with God.’ Jesus started out healing people. His disciples tried to keep him from being too burdened by people who ‘just wanted healing’ but after all, this healing was what they needed to properly feel part of Israel again. People want to preserve the decorum of Meeting so everyone can enjoy a lovely experience, but you know as well as I do that that it’s what it’s all about. How can we, then, be together with our warts (for now) and let that work to God’s glory?

  9. Thy Friend John Says:

    Oh, Treegestalt, I have to meet you in person sometime, geezer to geezer! Perhaps the Lord will arrange it. Yes, I do know that that’s not what it’s all about, and I often go to meeting wanting to shatter others’ hopes for a lovely experience, offering them, instead, an open doorway to an experience of awe before the living God! Which is what I’d most wish for myself, even if the approach to it might frighten me. But week after week, God doesn’t raise me to my feet to make people’s hair stand on end, but (if anything) to give a message of comfort. To entertain my family and close friends, I draw little comic strips starring the Grim Reaper, because part of me really wants to shake people up; but the ministry I’m actually called to is one of healing, and the medicine of truth I’m given to dispense is mostly very mild. The people I’d most want to call a Generation of Vipers seem mostly to stay in their viper-pits and not come within range of my tongue’s sharper edge.

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