Sunday, August 22, 2010

Gifts and grunt work

In addition to the general call to single-mindedness that I heard at this last New England Yearly Meeting sessions, a specific concern that seemed to need its own post came up clearly. This has to do with our understanding of gifts and the distribution of work.

I heard several Friends call us to recognize and support the spiritual gifts of particular individuals, gifts which were to be used for the benefit of the community. This sounded good to me, but seemed as though it could mean a variety of things. I had lunch with one Friend who spoke eloquently of the need to recognize ministers and elders, and went on to define these roles. Here’s how I understood the definition: ministers carry God’s words to the community, and are accountable to the community for their faithfulness in bearing this message; elders provide physical, logistical and emotional support for ministers and help them to discern whether or not the message has been delivered faithfully. The minister/elder relationship is not meant to be reciprocal--the elder takes care of the minister, the minister takes care of the message. People are apt to be given either the gift of ministry or the gift of eldership lifelong. This Friend felt called as a minister, and said that I seemed clearly to have a gift for eldership, as I had been busing tables and carrying things for people over the course of the week. I didn’t say much, but I didn’t take well to this. Partly that was an ego thing--I feel that I’ve also had occasion to speak the Word sometimes, which may be well and good, and I want to be recognized for that, which is not so good. Part of my reaction, though, arose from a larger concern which seemed to be connected.

Everyone is asked to volunteer with some physical work during Sessions, and I spent some time carrying trays and clearing tables. In the course of doing that work I noticed that quite a few people seemed to have loaded their trays into the rack that fed the dishwasher without sorting out and disposing of their paper and trash, as the signs clearly asked us to do. This bothered me because my work at the farm sometimes involves cleaning up after groups and I object when they don’t do their part, and because we had been talking about Jubilee and racial and economic justice and we were being inconsiderate of the folks who cleaned up after us, who were on average darker-skinned and probably less affluent than most of us. I started talking to other Friends about how we could most effectively remind people to be considerate. Some gave helpful suggestions and seemed to share the concern. (One especially helpful Friend pointed out that we should also be paying attention to the table signs asking us to avoid using trays unnecessarily, in order to save soap, hot water and the time of the dishwashers. I hadn’t been doing this, but I started after she spoke to me.) Others offered variations on, “We’re here trying to do important spiritual work, and you want to take people’s time and attention to talk about scraping plates?”

I had done something similar earlier in the week; I pushed the button on the ice-cream machine for a kid, and when we missed each other and there was a glob of soft-serve on the floor I was embarrassed and slipped away, figuring that someone would be along to clean the floor soon anyway and that would be their job and I wanted to get away from people who’d seen me being clumsy and foolish and anyway I had some other important things I wanted to do.

But I believe that the real important work, living into the kingdom of God, requires us to pay attention to the messes we make and the people who get stuck cleaning them up. I think it requires us to do more of our own basic work and to help our neighbors with theirs, rather than leaving a disproportionate share of it for poorer folks. I know this isn’t the only thing we need. I know we need ministry, teaching, the Word. But I think that if we each did our share of the basic work we’d each have some time and strength left to cultivate other gifts and use them in God’s service. I know that we need help in discerning how to rightly use our gifts. I hope we can find a way to do this clearly, consistently and lovingly, without letting our gifts excuse us from helping with the grunt-work of the world. I know both can be done; one of the things I like about Paul’s epistles is the combination of his clear writing about spiritual gifts and their care, and his insistence on the importance of manual labor.

I realize that I don’t think as clearly and calmly as I’d like to about this. It hooks into my memories of childhood involvement with the (intellectually) Gifted communityand into my recurring frustration at being considered dumb because I am farming. And it hooks into my dismay at the waste of the gifts of migrant workers who have visited us, who are usually too overtaxed and exhausted by their overlong shifts growing our food to have much time for prayer, song, storytelling... I would like to hear from others about how the recognition, nurture and exercise of spiritual gifts can be rightly exercised and balanced with mutual responsibility for basic work.

New England Yearly Meeting, part 1: seeking a single mind

I’ve been back from New England Yearly Meeting (for my non-Quaker friends, that’s when people from all the Quaker Meetings in New England get together to worship and make decisions) for a week now, and I’m still trying to sort out what happened there.
We spent most mornings and evenings in extended worship, setting aside our usual agendas and preoccupations so we could listen for God’s guidance. At least that was what we meant to do. I know I had trouble setting aside my own ideas about what we should do as a body, and my wish to say something noticeable and impressive, and my fear that we’d leave our time together without any sense of shared leading, and my fear that we’d settle for some Big Project that wasn’t a leading in our desperation to have something to show for ourselves... Sometimes I was able to look at these things quietly, not indulging them, not fighting them, and come into a spacious place, the place beyond myself. Sometimes when other people spoke I was able to stay there. Often I didn’t. From my own very limited perspective I thought I heard a wrenching combination of Truth and of human neediness and confusion, sometimes both emerging strongly from the same message. I still don’t know what proportions of each were present in the message I gave.
James 4:7-8 was strongly in my mind during this week. “Submit yourselves to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Come near to God, and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.” I struggle fairly constantly with double-mindedness. When I try to do the work that needs to be done to meet the needs around me, I am moved by love but also by the fear of being culpable and the desire to prove myself Good. Sometimes this double-mindedness hurried me into work that isn’t really mine or prompts me to try to solve a problem before I have taken time to understand it. But most of the time I can muddle along and do more good than harm. I thought I heard other people speaking from similarly mixed motives in their own work, and I believe that much of their work is well done. But when we come together and try to act and discern as a body this double-mindedness effectively blocks us. On the private, human level our concerns, priorities, fears, gifts, blocks are different; our only hope for real unity is in our common submission to God. And when that isn’t single-minded we’re stuck in our separate brokennesses, unable to hear, heal, help each other. We can’t effectively be the body of Christ. Of course other, more destructive forms of unity are possible; we can be a clique, or a mob. We didn’t do either of those things this week. We did acknowledge our brokenness and the call which we hear and can’t yet corporately answer. We did recognize that we had hurt and disappointed each other.
And, in small groups and small ways, I think we did help each other. After one particularly conflicted session Colin Bussiere-Nichols, a young adult Friend, invited people who had felt drawn to offered vocal ministry to talk about how they discerned whether or not to speak; I thought there was some help and deepening in that conversation, as well as tenderness for people who had felt hurt in the session. I heard many Friends say that they felt a new kind of support, accountability and connectedness in the small ‘anchor groups’ with which they met daily. I met with a small group to talk about forgiveness and felt that some good wrestling, stretching and healing happened there. Cat Chapin-Bishop's post about forgiveness speaks to this more clearly and strongly than I can at this point.
I hope that we can remember both the good things and the brokenness, and that we can practice wholeness and faithfulness over the next year. I hope I can do this. I hope, too, that I can hold onto the sense I often had in our group sessions of deeply knowing both our failure and God’s sustaining.