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.