Saturday, April 15, 2006

We Are All Ministers

(Note: this posting is partially adapted from a comment on another's blog.)

Quakers are radically non-hierarchical and regard all Friends as ministers.

What does this mean to you?

Does it mean: "I am so lucky -- I go to a church where everyone is a minister (except me)! This means that they are all my ministers!"

Or does it mean that you go to Meeting thinking, "I am a Minister. How will I be called to minister to my people today?"

I ask this out of my growing concern that so many Friends are disappointed in each other lately. The disappointment comes, I think, from the expectations we have of other Friends ministering to us.

But what if, whenever we felt disappointment in other Friends, this signalled to us that it is our turn to be Minister in our Meeting? It is our turn to recognize that others struggle with difficulties and need our compassion, forgiveness, understanding, and support?

After all, we do not pay one person to minister to all of us. Very few of us have had training in pastoral care. This means first of all that we each take turns ministering and being ministered to. And it means, secondly, that very few of us have been trained in how to minister effectively. Bring these two observations together, and a third implication rolls out: for each of us, it is far more comfortable hoping that others will minister to us than it is to figure out how to effectively minister to others.

It is especially fear that blocks us from effectively ministering to each other. We are afraid of doing it wrong, offending others, making mistakes, being misperceived. We know that really getting involved in each other's spiritual lives is powerful and dangerous business.

Understanding fear itself as an important dynamic in spiritual life is actually a good starting point for figuring out how to become an effective minister.

Everyone lives with fears. And most people's fears come from painful experiences in their past. It is an unfortunate truth of human existence that people hurt each other quite frequently. Fear is the soul's way of seeking self-protection. This does not mean that living fearfully is the best way to live. But fear must be respected, listened to, and questioned. We each have to take responsibility for this in our own spiritual life. But how we relate to the fears of others is a very sensitive and delicate matter.

Here I turn to the story of George Fox telling William Penn to "wear thy sword as long as thou canst." Whether or not Fox actually said this, it is very powerful, and, I believe, very wise.

My interpretation is that Fox knew that, whether it was pride or insecurity, anxiety, or fear that motivated Penn to wear his sword, it wasn't his (Fox's) to make Penn let go of it. He trusted that Penn would let go when he was ready. It was respectful of Fox to realize that it was up to Penn to sort out what it meant and to make his own decisions around it. And it was also pragmatic: as soon as one person tries to pressure another into letting go of his or her sword, the second person has every reason to cling all the more tightly to it, because it is exactly that kind of pressuring that is at the root of the ways that people hurt each other -- well-intentioned or not. The reason is because of the inherent disrespect behind this kind of pressuring: "I know better than you what's good for you." No. We don't know the stories of pain that are behind our friends' fears. We must trust them to find their healing and build their strength, and we must trust God.

I have become increasingly aware of how much we expect each other to be God in our lives. We want everyone to be perfectly wise, strong, and brave: to know our own needs perfectly and address them flawlessly; to care about the problems of the world in exactly the same ways we do, and to respond to those problems in exactly the ways we think would be best. This is a problem in our culture today, but it is perhaps intensified in the Quaker subculture because of the expectation that everyone be a minister. But we fail in our own compassion if this is what we expect of everyone else.

We cannot, must not, expect each other to be God in our lives. It is true that people are wounded and in their fear and brokenness are not always wise enough or strong enough or courageous enough to do what we think is the right thing to do. When this happens, it is our spiritual challenge first to find our own healing from God, and then to learn how to be compassionate and forgiving towards those who let us down.

It is those very moments of being let down by others that call us to turn more directly to God. And it is our belief, as a denomination, that everyone can call on God directly when the people in our lives let us down, that is behind our view that we are all ministers.*

---
* Yes, echoes of Fox here! "And when all my hopes in [all people] were gone ... then, oh then, I heard a voice which said, 'There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition,' and when I heard it my heart did leap for joy."

5 comments:

  1. "It was respectful of Fox to realize that it was up to Penn to sort out what it meant and to make his own decisions around it."

    I am finding it difficult to express how much these words moved me. It names a misgiving I have felt about any number of interactions I have seen within my meeting and gives them one name: disrespect. I had been contemplating that the vague unease I had was something to do with judging. I was fishing around, chasing what I thought was some problem to do with too many intelligent people with their own intelligent thoughts and not enough heart-sense and loving-kindness. People, I kept thinking, like to judge, like to use their intelligent brains to dissect and parse and explain, it makes them feel better. They don't know how to turn off the parsing. But, no, my thoughts were off in the wrong direction. What I have been seeing, in myself as well as others, is abandonment of a basic respect. Part of that includes not only allowing others to make mistakes, but admitting we can't really be completely sure it is a mistake. Twice I caught myself dismissing fellow-Quakers' ministry during meeting and then later, a week later, two weeks later, would realize they *were* right, and I was wrong. I thought I was simply being taught a lesson I am very slow to learn, humility. But even more essential than that, a level I had not yet recognized was underneath it all, is respect. Not only for another person and the spiritual path they are on, but also respect for God. For the ways God can act in other people's lives that (strangely enough) happens with no reference to what we think should happen or to what we think is best. The things God can have others say in meeting that are meant to be said, even when you don't think so. So easy to judge, dismiss, to meet others with disrespect.

    Thank you, Contemplative Scholar, for this entry.

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  2. I come out on pretty much the same page as you do, CS, about Fox's surrender to letting Penn "sort out what it meant and to make his own decisions around it." Before we let go of any long-standing behaviors or life-patterns, we better be d*** well sure that we've kept them "as long as thou canst."

    This was good advice for me when I was considering moving out of Milwaukee. I needed to let my resistance about such a move speak to me "as long as thou canst," so that when I was clear to move, I would have no regrets; nothing to hold over someone else's head and say, "It's your fault; you told me I should move but I shouldn't have..."

    I also want to comment briefly on another part of what you write: "The disappointment comes, I think, from the expectations we have of other Friends ministering to us. But what if, whenever we felt disappointment in other Friends, this signalled to us that it is our turn to be Minister in our Meeting?"

    More than once I have been caught in laying my (high) expectations on Friends, rather than placing my trust in God and how God might be working in my own and in other Friends' lives. For me, then, sometimes my disappointment is an indication that I have separated myself from the "covenant community."

    Lloyd Lee Wilson writes:

    "In the covenant community, we choose to be in relationship with God, and God gives us to one another and to the community. Our primary bond is to God, which makes the community resilient and capable of great healing. The crises and interpersonal failures which could destroy a human community become, in the covenant community, opportunities for the love of God to heal and reconcile us to one another...." (p. 62, Essays on the Quaker Vision of Gospel Order)

    Overall, yes, I agree that we need to remember that the quip "Friends have no clergy" is another way of saying, "All of us are ministers to one another," which in turn may mean we have to look at if we are being faithful in bringing forward our measure of Light within the life of the meeting.

    Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts; it's got me thinking too, which is good.

    Blessings,
    Liz, The Good Raised Up

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  3. Thank you both for your comments! Part of the reason I write about this is that I need to keep reminding myself as well!

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  4. "Overall, yes, I agree that we need to remember that the quip "Friends have no clergy" is another way of saying, "All of us are ministers to one another," "

    Oh, it is so nice to see these ideas in writing somewhere. I personally don't feel as though I depend on my meeting much, but I think that as a body we depend too much on a small handful of people and don't ask enough of ourselves.

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  5. Thank you, Canine. I think you are right that we often don't ask enough of ourselves. And, related, we also forget the therapeutic power to ourselves of asking more of ourselves! Often our ministering to others also turns out to benefit ourselves in ways we may not have anticipated.

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