Growing Together in the Light

A place for Friends and others to explore Quakerism. A place where, in the Light that comes from God, we may all grow and where we may hope to find a unity that underlies our diversity of language.

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Location: Arlington, Massachusetts, United States

Raised a Friend, I am currently a member of Fresh Pond Meeting in Cambridge, Mass. I am also active in Salem Quarterly Meeting and in New England Yearly Meeting.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Politics and Spirituality

I have been thinking lately about the difference between a spiritual and a political approach to conflict. This has been prompted by my experiences dealing with conflict in New England Yearly Meeting (NEYM) and in Friends United Meeting (FUM). And this being the week before an election, politics is pretty hard to avoid.

One of significant differences between the two approaches is in how the decision is implemented. The political process carries with it the threat of coercion to enforce the decisions. The whole idea behind elections is to count up the size of the “army” of supporters for each candidate or position and victory goes to the largest “army.” In any case, once you get 50% plus 1 to agree on something, then you have the entire coercive power of the state to enforce the decision. As a result, a major part of any political campaign is to get out the vote of like-minded people. The easiest way to victory is to get your people to the polls. The next part is to try to convince people who do not have any opinion or only mild opinions, that your side is correct. What is really hard to do is to convince people who disagree with you to change their mind. Most politicians don't even bother. They mobilize their base and go after the undecideds.

In legislative bodies things are only a little different. The members of the legislature work together on many issues so that they have an opportunity to develop personal relationships. Votes are often rounded up, not by persuasion but by the giving and receiving of favors. I will support your bill for this if you support my bill for that. Since many bills are relatively non-controversial, this works. When there is a controversy, the work is often to find language that both sides can live with.

Spiritual decision making, at least as practiced by Quakers, is different. The body usually has no power to coerce consent with a decision. People have to unite with the decision for it to actually be implemented. The goal of decision making is to discern God's will so there is an expectation that people may have to change their minds. Of course, we are not always happy to change our minds and we often resist doing so. We need to leave the business of changing minds and hearts to God, since there is always the possibility that the heart or mind that needs to change is ours.

Most Friends are comfortable in the political arena. We are not necessarily so comfortable with spiritual decision making. It is a mistake to bring our political experience to spiritual decision making. The goal is different. It is not, how can we find something that 50% plus one, or 90% or even everyone can agree on. It is finding unity on discerning how God wants us to proceed.

One of the reason that NEYM sessions were so difficult this year was that people brought political methods to a spiritual process. There was a contingent of people who had little or no previous experience at Yearly Meeting coming to try to get the yearly meeting to adopt their position. The position that they were advocating was essentially a coercive action against other Friends. If FUM does not change it's personnel policy, we will stop sending money.

At the FUM General Board Meeting, there was an attempt to try to find language that people could agree on that would acknowledge differences but allow a way to approve the personnel manual. This didn't work because the differences are too great to allow a change of wording to resolve it

In spiritual decision making, there is a need to let down your guard and your defenses. Let down your own willing and striving and see what God wants to do. This is difficult. There is a tendency to see God as the ultimate army of political backers. God is on our side and His vote counts for more. In the case of FUM and the sexual ethics portion of the personnel policy, both sides are convinced that God is on their side. When this happens, it is a clear sign, at least to me, that both sides are seeing only a piece of what God wants. What is required is the difficult work of removing logs from our eyes so that we can see clearly. We need to unstop our ears so that we can hear each other and God more clearly. We need to open up our hearts to each other so that we can approach each other in love. We need to pray together so that our hearts and minds are opened to God so that we all may be changed.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Impressions from the October FUM General Board Meeting

The FUM General Board met last week. This was the first meeting of the new triennium so we had new clerks, some turnover in membership and we had to reappoint our standing committees. Because of other commitments and my travel schedule, I didn't arrive at Quaker Hill until almost the end of the morning session on Thursday. As soon as I walked in I felt a different spirit. It seemed gentler and more open. I wasn't sure if it was due to changes in my attitudes or the beautiful weather but I heard other people making similar comments. I took encouragement from even this small sign.

On Thursday night and Friday morning, informal discussions were scheduled while the various board committees were meeting. I caught the tail end of the discussion on the Richmond Declaration on Thursday night. On Friday I participated in the discussions on “The Christian Faith of Friends,” a pamphlet by Ben Richmond, and one that followed on the Bible. Through all of this there was respectful listening. I think that this was a good opportunity for us to discuss our beliefs outside of the context of decision making.
Meanwhile the Executive Committee was wrestling with the Personnel Manual. There are a number of items that need to be cleaned up. They wanted to change the vacation and sick time accrual and usage to be based on the FUM fiscal year and not the calendar year. They also wanted more clarity about exempt and non-exempt employees. While different parts of the manual have been approved, it is not clear that the General Board has approved the entire manual. This normal sort of organizational housekeeping, of course, runs smack into the controversy about the sexual ethics policy. There were efforts to craft a minute that would acknowledge the differences but acknowledge that there was not unity on changing it. The hope was that this would allow the Board to proceed with approving the non-controversial parts of the manual.

When this issue came before the Board, these hopes were proven to be futile. There were people who would not approve of dropping the paragraph. There were others who could not approve a manual that included a discriminatory policy. As the discussion progressed I found myself becoming increasingly uneasy with the approach of trying to come up with acceptable language. It seems to me that trying to find a solution in carefully crafted language is a political approach to what is really a spiritual problem.

The immediate resolution was to send the proposed manual to a labor lawyer to see that it conforms with Indiana labor law. There should also be consultation with someone familiar with immigration law to see what risks we are exposed to by our policy of not requiring people to submit I-9 forms. Our position as a church makes us exempt from the anti-discrimination laws concerning gays and lesbians but there were questions about whether our acceptance of US Government grants for the Kenyan hospitals and Ramallah Friends School has any impact on this. Basically we said that we could not approve the manual until this consultation happened, any required revisions were made, and our questions of fact were answered. This of course does not resolve the problem, it only provides more time. Whatever the lawyers say, I do not expect that it will resolve the problem.

As far as I can tell, we cannot solve the problem of the sexual ethics policy by any of our normal organizational means. This does not mean that the problem is insoluble. Nothing is impossible to God. At some point, the General Board will have to be willing to spend as much time in prayer as is needed to find God's will. We will need to be humble enough, all of us, to recognize that the solution we favor may not be what God would do. It may also be that we have to spend a long time in prayer together before we can see a way forward. I would ask everyones prayers for FUM in dealing with this issue. In particular I would ask for prayers that we can all lay down our agendas and be able to listen carefully to God and to each other so that we can come to a place of unity in Spirit that can lead us forward. God is working here already. God is always working with us. I pray that we can find ways to work with God.

Blessings to all,

Will T

Friday, October 03, 2008

In God We Trust

The current economic situation reminds me of the apocryphal sign behind the counter in a store:
“In God we trust, all others must pay cash.”

One of the things that is aggravating the current economic situation is that the banks and large financial institutions have stopped trusting each other. They do not trust that they will be repaid if they loan each other money. So they don't. Or they only do so at rates so high as to be unaffordable. How did we get to this place.

Quakers were instrumental in creating many of our financial structures and institutions. Quakers founded and operated a number of the banks in England. There were a number of reasons for this but one of them was the Quakers' reputation for absolute honesty, integrity and sobriety. Who better to trust your money to than a person committed to telling the truth in all things. A plain dressed Quaker was also unlikely to siphon off your money to pay for their luxuries.

Quakers were well known for their carefulness with money. Bankruptcy was grounds for disownment. Not paying debts was considered a form of untruthfulness because you had broken your word. It also indicated that you had perhaps overextended yourself and had not stayed low and faithful to your Inner Guide. It indicated that perhaps you had let a desire for worldly goods to cloud your judgment.

Nowadays Quakers mostly seem not to take to careers in business or finance. They lean much more towards academia and social or medical services or software engineering. I suspect that there is fertile ground fo sociological studies examining why this is. At least one part of it is a desire to good in the world. Teaching or healing or working for non-profits are obvious ways of doing good. But wouldn't the world be a better place today if there had been a few more Quaker bankers and financiers. Would we be in this sub-prime mortgage mess if the mortgage originators had been committed to scrupulous honesty? Would we have had the piling of debt upon debt if the financial institutions had been run by people who would not consider making a promise that they could not keep?

But none of that was the case and we are in a mess. So who do we trust now? Friends will claim to trust in God, but do we? Did we feel confident because we were living in good times and do we feel insecure now that our investments and retirement funds have taken a serious hit and we do not know what lies in store? When early Friends refused hat honor, or used thee and thou with people who thought they should be addressed with the plural your, they were holding a mirror up to them to see their pride. Friends considered that the angry reactions that they provoked were a way for the person getting angry to see how much pride had gotten a hold on them.

The current situation is a similar opportunity. It is a chance for us to see, in our reactions, where we have really laid up our treasure. Have we laid them up in heaven or on earth where rust, moths and financial collapse consume? How much of our lives serve God and how much Mammon? Is the Lord our rock and our refuge?

Is our cry that of Revelation 19:11-17:

"The merchants of the earth will weep and mourn over her because no one buys their cargoes any more— cargoes of gold, silver, precious stones and pearls; fine linen, purple, silk and scarlet cloth; every sort of citron wood, and articles of every kind made of ivory, costly wood, bronze, iron and marble; cargoes of cinnamon and spice, of incense, myrrh and frankincense, of wine and olive oil, of fine flour and wheat; cattle and sheep; horses and carriages; and bodies and souls of men.
"They will say, 'The fruit you longed for is gone from you. All your riches and splendor have vanished, never to be recovered.' The merchants who sold these things and gained their wealth from her will stand far off, terrified at her torment. They will weep and mourn and cry out:
" 'Woe! Woe, O great city,
dressed in fine linen, purple and scarlet,
and glittering with gold, precious stones and pearls!
In one hour such great wealth has been brought to ruin!'

Or, in this our time of difficulty do we sing like the author of Psalm 46:

God is our refuge and strength,
an ever-present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way
and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam
and the mountains quake with their surging.
There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy place where the Most High dwells.
God is within her, she will not fall;
God will help her at break of day.
Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall;
he lifts his voice, the earth melts.
The LORD Almighty is with us;
the God of Jacob is our fortress.
Come and see the works of the LORD,
the desolations he has brought on the earth.
He makes wars cease to the ends of the earth;
he breaks the bow and shatters the spear,
he burns the shields [b] with fire.
"Be still, and know that I am God;
I will be exalted among the nations,
I will be exalted in the earth."
The LORD Almighty is with us;
the God of Jacob is our fortress.

I find myself switching between songs, often several times a day.

Blessings to all,

Will T