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.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Community, Safety and God

Our meeting had a retreat recently. For the first hour we shared about what we would need to feel safe during the retreat. People shared about needing to feel heard and respected. They needed to have their responses taken seriously and not judged. People shared about needing to be able to speak passionately without it being taking as anger or judgment. People spoke of needed to be able to speak up if they felt hurt by something someone said. At one point I found myself getting a little impatient. When were we going to get past this and on to the real business of the retreat. Then I realized that this was the real business. The purpose of the retreat was to explore our vision for the meeting community. I realized that all of these needs that we were expressing for the session also described what kind of community we wanted our meeting to be. We want a place where we feel respected. We need to hear each others voices. We need to express our vulnerabilities. We need to be able to express our passions. We need to recognize that we are all imperfect and sometimes we will hurt each other. When that happens we need to be able to name the hurt, reconcile and heal, and go on.

I was struck by the paradox of what we were doing. We were trying to create a community where we would all feel safe. But the purpose of the community is to be a place where we can find God. But encountering God is an inherently dangerous activity. “It is a fearsome thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” [Hebrews 10:31] Moses asked if any mortal could look on the face of God and live. It is because of the inherent danger of what we are about that the safety of the community is so important. You would not go rock climbing without a companion and a rope. The community provides the safe place to do a dangerous thing. It provides the support and encouragement that allows us to go on.

The other irony is that the encounter with God is not dangerous to our souls. It is only dangerous to our egos, our personas, the false self we project to the world. It is dangerous to our illusions about ourselves because the encounter with God shows us as we really are. God is dangerous to the defenses we have built over the years to protect ourselves from the hurts we have encountered. But God strips all of that away from us. God will be as the refiners fire and burn away from us all that is not of God. Ultimately this is healing. In fact it is a source of great joy. It allows us to grow into who God would have us be. But it is awesome in prospect and sometimes painful in the process. And so we need safe and supportive companions as we embark on such a perilous journey. This is why community is so vital to Quakerism.

Blessings to all,
Will T


Blogger Cat Chapin-Bishop said...

I realize that I've been pretty lucky, in my lifetime, to have had few experiences of violence or betrayal. So, when I am with community, I rarely feel the need to establish safety--I feel safe and centered most of the time when I'm with Friends, and I cherish the fact that one of the parts of my self that is least acceptable to the outside world--my god-hunger, my yearning to love deeply--has been made so welcome. As one Friend reflected in a discussion of our meeting community last year, "This is the one place I can come where people let me love them." I know just what he means, and it feels so good!

But I also know that I can be very fearful of Friends on an individual level. I think it's one of the reasons I'm as active in the Quaker blogosphere as I am... here, if someone dislikes me or rejects me or thinks of me as wildly inappropriate, even if they tell me so in scorching language, I can go off on my own for a bit, maybe pour myself a cup of coffee or even cry on my husband's shoulder for a bit, before I sit down and figure out whether to reply and what to say. I have time to center down, sift through what I sense is probably true in what has been said to me, what I fear may be true, and what, when I am still and listen hard, I'm pretty sure isn't true.

It helps a lot, this distance in space and time.

It can be quite terrifying, the process of beginning to become closer to individual Quakers in real-time, in person. Sitting in worship lends a sense of intimacy that is magnificent, and usually (in my experience) accurate; the people I have learned to love in silence usually, when I am able to find an opening to speak to them one on one, I am confirmed in: they are as loveable and I care about them as deeply as it seemed I would when we are deep in the Light together.

But because the place where we are joined is so deep in my core, each individual new friendship with someone I've come to love within community comes freighted with fear on some levels. It is so personal, this knowing; I dread to presume, to offend. Yeah, I'm afraid of being rebuffed by someone I see as a weighty Friend, but I'm also afraid of burdening them.

Mostly, though, it's the old fear, of making a fool of myself, of being an eager, silly puppy, that keeps me mute and afraid to take friendships deeper. I don't want to be laughed at, or subject to that pained silence that says, "Wow--she's really not house-broken, is she?"

I know God accepts and loves imperfectly housebroken puppies. I even trust that my community does. But I don't think I'm very accepting of myself in that regard.

One of the hardest, scariest things I ever do in my meeting for worship is open up to a seasoned Friend with a question I care about, or--most terrifying of all--just exchange confidences, one on one.

Ludicrous, given how personal my communications can be in my blog or online. But there is something about being right there, in the same place as another person--damn, I wind up feeling like a three year old so much of the time!

Of course, I'm pretty sure that it's exactly when I'm in that timid three-year-old place in myself that I am growing most deeply into the self God intends me to be. So I try to be courageous--to push myself beyond the kind of safety that is being curled up warm in my self-satisfaction by the fireside, to the kind you are talking about: being on belay, roped in, but daring the heights with Friends.

Live. Not just online. Whew!

December 11, 2008 11:15 AM  
Blogger Liz Opp said...

"...the encounter with God is not dangerous to our souls. It is only dangerous to our egos..."

I love that line, Will! Thanks for writing about this retreat. I hope you'll be able to reflect on, and share with us, how the roots and fruits of it are doing...

Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up

December 15, 2008 3:42 PM  
Blogger Will T said...

Thank you for your comment. I think that many of us bloggers are shy people at heart. I know that I am. So it is a bit of a conundrum that we find it easier to open up to the world on-line than it is in person. But then the world is a funny place like that.

I don't know that I have much more about that particular retreat but I have been busy with other things too, so there is more coming.


December 15, 2008 9:25 PM  
Blogger Paul said...

Will, Thanks for writing about your retreat. One of the fears I have always had among
Friends is Meeting for Worship. That someone will stand up in worship and make inappropriate statement about race.
Particularly when I am the only person of color in Meeting.Which is ninety-nine percent of the time.What do you do? Walk out,prayer for the person,hope that worship and ministry will speak out?
It’s all about trust.But on a very deep level I know I have no control of a person's behavior in meeting or worship. All I can do is speak my truth and pray others will understand and join with me.

December 16, 2008 11:31 AM  
Anonymous cath said...

Will T said: People shared about needing to be able to speak passionately without it being taking as anger or judgment.

This has happened often to me among Friends. Interestingly, it rarely happens when I am with my Mennonite friends. Many would assume the opposite, but that has not been my experience.


December 20, 2008 11:54 AM  

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